Tokyo Story Movie Review

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The works of director Yasujiro Ozu, who worked for many decades before his death in 1963, embody a certain classical approach to filmmaking in Japan. His films are slow-moving, meditative, and austerely stylized, and they return again and again to the same themes: the life of the family, the interaction between generations, the basic sadness of life and the ways in which honest people can overcome it. His style is so complete in its serenity and his output so monumental that it took a whole generation of younger directors, led by his one-time student Shohei Imamura, to react against him, as though Ozu's influence required a Herculean effort to work out of the Japanese film industry's system. And if cameras were to move, if the underside of life in Japan was to be portrayed on the screen, if violence and sex were to find their way into that country's cinema, it had to be. Ozu's body of work stood in opposition.

Because of the contemplative nature of Ozu's work, Western audiences strive to find something Eastern and spiritual in them. But Ozu's true greatness lies in exactly the opposite quality; below the Zen-like peace of their surfaces, the films tell stories as universal as any ever have. His 1953 Tokyo Story is the classic example: an aging couple travel to Tokyo to visit their children, but find that their children have little time for them when they arrive. Traveling back to their small town, the mother becomes sick and dies, and her surviving spouse and children come to terms with her loss.

There are no fireworks here; if the premise sounds sparse in terms of contemporary filmmaking, the style is even sparser. Ozu favored a static camera in these "home dramas," with a uniform point-of-view from three feet off the ground, and his editing and composition strive for the "invisibility" we find in Renoir. If Hollywood were to attempt a similar story today, it would be all manipulation: a Ron Howard-type of tearjerker, with soft focus and strings poured over the proceedings like syrup. I'm afraid Robin Williams might star. But Ozu's gift was that he trusted his audience to experience the tragedy of Tokyo Story - and similarly themed films such as Floating Weeds and Late Spring - without his interference. Watching a film like Tokyo Story is like people-watching from the point of view of a god.

Tokyo Story didn't receive an American release until 1972, and it occasioned a Western reevalution of a confirmed Japanese master. Criterion has just released the film on DVD with its usual attention to quality, and it will be interesting to see if this masterpiece of restraint and intelligence can find an audience amid the clamor of special effects and fast-cuts that filmmaking has become today. A sleepy but informative audio commentary appends the feature, plus a second disc features two long documentaries about Ozu.

aka Tokyo Monogatari; Their First Trip to Tokyo.

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Tokyo Story Rating

" Essential "

Rating: NR, 1953

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